Evan Lysacek celebrates winning gold at the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010 on Feb. 18, 2010 in Vancouver.
You remember Evan Lysacek in the big moments: That gold-medal performance at the Olympic Winter Games Vancouver 2010, where, clad in elegant black with his dark hair slicked back, he become the first American man since Brian Boitano to take figure skating’s most coveted title. Or the 2009 world championships, when he captured his first and only world crown despite skating on a left foot with a stress fracture.
Lysacek doesn’t expect you to remember him at all. In the swirl of stars offered up by one of the Winter Games’ highest profile sports, nine years post-Vancouver he knows he’s a face in an ever-changing crowd of skating sensations. He’s always felt the failures are more defining than successes, anyway: his 12th place finish at the 2002 nationals, Frank Carroll’s initial reluctance to train him, the fall in the short program at the 2006 Olympics in Torino that likely cost him a medal.
Today the 33-year-old from Illinois credits those missteps as turning points allowed him to become the athlete who holds a place in Olympic history, he said in a recent email Q&A with TeamUSA.org that touched on an array of topics, including this week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, part of the Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity.
Here, in his own words, is Lysacek’s success story.
How would you describe the most significant moments that shaped your career before Vancouver?
My second senior nationals in 2002 was a low point in my career, but it shaped my work ethic forever. It was the only competition that I ever remember showing up ill-prepared for. After a brutal free skate and an embarrassing placement, I vowed that I would again arrive unready to compete. I carried the feeling of shame with me on most days for years after, and used that as a scare tactic to push myself harder and further in training.
About a year later, I graduated high school and my parents allowed me to spend the next 12 months focusing on only skating. I called Frank Carroll one night, with notes I had made about what I wanted to say, with a list of my goals, and I asked him to be my coach. He essentially said no. His schedule was full and he could not train me because he was training Timothy Goebel at the time.
He did offer a solution, which was that I could train in his camp with another coach, and he would help oversee my progress. I had shared with Frank that I wanted to be on the 2006 Olympic team, which was just two seasons away at that point. He was the only person that I had found in skating that believed that this was achievable, and therefore I knew he was the right person to guide me.
When I arrived in Los Angeles, I remember feeling like such an amateur. Every skater on the ice had competed in either an Olympics or world championship except for me. Mr. Carroll would give me four 20-minute lessons per week. These lessons would occur at the very end of the day based on Frank’s schedule.
Frequently, by the time I worked with him, I would have already skated for five or six hours. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. Being on the ice for so many hours gave me the time I needed to improve skills, from compulsory moves to jumps and spins. It also forced me to find ways to stay focused. I would play games with myself, try to do 10 of each jump in a row without missing; or do three clean short program run-throughs in a row. These little games were building not only physical strength, but a mental control that I would need in my career.
And then you got to the 2006 Games, and…
In the end, I did qualify for the 2006 Olympic Winter Games. It was at those 2006 Games that another failure would be the defining moment that eventually allowed me to become a world and Olympic champion. In the short program, I fell on my opening triple axel and placed 10th. After a better free skate — I placed third in the free — and a jump up to fourth place overall, I watched as three skaters that I had grown up knowing and competing against wore an Olympic medal around their necks.
I stood at the barrier devastated … and haunted by my failed triple axel in the short program, which likely cost me a medal. I worried that this may have been my only chance at an Olympic medal, and justification for a lifetime of work and sacrifice, and I had failed.
The day of my short program in Vancouver, I had trouble keeping the memory of 2006 out of my mind, so I told myself that it was up to me to not ever feel that way again. It was completely within my control. Four short years spanned the time between one of the worst days of my life, and possibly the best.
It’s been 10 years since you won the world title in Los Angeles on an injured foot. Looking back, how in the world did you manage to do that?
Through intense training, I had become very consistent and very fit. Nearly robotic in my ability to perform on command. Even through pain, illness, jetlag, fatigue, distraction and nearly any other obstacle, I could still perform what I was trained to do.
Why do you think you were as successful as you were? Everyone works hard, and everyone wants it badly. What set you apart?
It’s safe to assume that all elite athletes train hard, and all of them want to win. Aside from being very prepared, I don’t know exactly why I was successful. I can speculate and say that a part of my success was because I had crystal clarity about my motivation. I was motivated to achieve. Real achievement to me felt like something that would stand the test of time, something that wouldn’t expire and nobody could take away from me.
I didn’t want to be famous, I didn’t want to be a star, I didn’t strive to be outrageous … I only wanted to achieve. I thought of performing under pressure and of winning every second of every day. I knew exactly what I needed to do to succeed. That clarity is a luxury that few people in few professions are afforded.
What would you say to today’s crop of hopefuls at the U.S. championships?
Work hard. Don’t ever be lazy. The life of an athlete is short, and you don’t have a single day to waste. Keep your eyes on the prize, and don’t compare yourself to your competitors. I can’t remember a single competition that I was the best skater in the field, probably not even the 10th best, but I never doubted that I could win. There will always be someone better, faster, stronger, more talented, but it’s rarely the best that wins; it’s usually the most determined. Also, always always have respect for your role as a representative of your country.
Is success something that comes naturally, or does it have to be forced?
I’m sure that there are different opinions on this question, and each person who succeeds may have a different story. For me, nothing came naturally — everything was earned.
How much skating do you do these days?
Being active has been such a huge part of my life. With a full-time job, I have to be creative about my exercise hours, but I still try to get some physical activity in every day. I love to play tennis, run, ski and paddleboard, but most days I just strength train. Inspired by my close friend Michelle Kwan, in 2018 I set a New Year’s resolution to start skating again, after nearly a year off the ice. Like most resolutions, it lasted about 10 days. I set the same resolution for 2019, and am really hoping to find more time to skate this year, as I still love so much about the sport.
How did Vera Wang’s costumes influence your performances?
As I progressed to the most elite levels of the sport, I came to appreciate the nuances of every aspect of competition more. Each component plays into the judges’ opinion of a routine, and therefore the way that they grade it. I always saw “Coached by Frank Carroll,” “Choreography by Lori Nichol,” “Music editing by Lenore Kay” and “Uniforms by Vera Wang” as the skating dream team. In 2009, I asked Vera Wang to design my Olympic season uniforms, and she agreed.
The process and the study working with a real fashion designer was so far beyond anything that I had known. We talked about weight and gauge of fabrics, using the most technically advanced on the market. We also explored treatments that would be appreciated up close from the judges’ standpoint, and from afar for television. I had always felt self-conscious about my body, being so tall for a figure skater, but the uniforms that Vera Wang designed for me made me feel handsome while still being thematic enough to reflect the music. Vera Wang went on to design everything that I wore on the ice through my final performances in 2014.
How do you hope people remember you and your skating?
It’s hard to expect that people will remember me at all. Most of us are so wrapped up in the insanity of our daily lives, that we barely have the time to look anywhere but ahead. I guess if I really think of what would make me happy, it would be to know that someone remembers that I represented my country well. I looked at each event not only as a chance to achieve, but with respect for my responsibility to represent America. If anyone noticed that, it would make me proud.